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I will admit, when I first read about the Permanent Portfolio in the late-80s, I was somewhat skeptical, but not totally dismissive.  Here is the classic Permanent Portfolio, equal proportions of:

  • S&P 500 stocks
  • The longest Treasury Bonds
  • Spot Gold
  • Money market funds

Think about Inflation, how do these assets do?

  • S&P 500 stocks – mediocre to pretty good
  • The longest Treasury Bonds – craters
  • Spot Gold – soars
  • Money market funds – keeps value, earns income

Think about Deflation, how do these assets do?

  • S&P 500 stocks – pretty poor to pretty good
  • The longest Treasury Bonds – soars
  • Spot Gold – craters
  • Money market funds – makes a modest amount, loses nothing

Long bonds and gold are volatile, but they are definitely negatively correlated in the long run.  The Permanent Portfolio concept attempts to balance the effects of inflation and deflation, and capture returns from the overshooting that these four asset classes do.

What did I do?

I got the returns data from 12/31/69 to 9/30/2011 on gold, T-bonds, T-bills, and stocks.  I created a hypothetical portfolio that started with 25% in each, rebalancing to 25% in each whenever an asset got to be more than 27.5% or less than 22.5% of the portfolio.  This was the only rebalancing strategy that I tested.  I did not do multiple tests and pick the best one, because that would induce more hindsight bias, where I torture the data to make it confess what I want.

I used a 10% band around 25% ( 22.5%-27.5%) figuring that it would rebalance the portfolio with moderate frequency.  Over the 566 months of the study, it rebalanced 102 times.  At the top of this article is a graphical summary of the results.

The smooth-ish gold line in the middle is the Permanent Portfolio.  Frankly, I was surprised at how well it did.  It did so well, that I decided to ask, what if we drop out the T-bills in order to leverage the idea.  It improves the returns by 1%, but kicks up the 12-month drawdown by 7%.  Probably not a good tradeoff, but pretty amazing that it beats stocks with lower than bond drawdowns.  That’s the light brown line.

ResultsS&P TRBond TRT-bill TRGold TRPP TRPP TR levered
Annualized Return10.40%8.38%4.77%7.82%8.80%9.93%
Max 12-mo drawdown-43.32%-22.66%0.02%-35.07%-7.65%-14.75%

 

Now the above calculations assume no fees.  If you decide to implement it using SPY, TLT, SHY and GLD, (or something similar) there will be some modest level of fees, and commission costs.

 

 What Could Go Wrong

Now, what could go wrong with an analysis like this?  The first point is that the history could be unusual, and not be indicative of the future.  What was unusual about the period 1970-2017?

  • Went off the gold standard; individual holding of gold legalized.
  • High level of gold appreciation was historically abnormal.
  • Deregulation of money markets allowed greater volatility in short-term rates.
  • ZIRP crushed money market rates.
  • Federal Reserve micro-management of short-term rates led to undue certainty in the markets over the efficacy of monetary policy – “The Great Moderation.”
  • Volcker era interest rates were abnormal, but necessary to squeeze out inflation.
  • Low long Treasury rates today are abnormal, partially due to fear, and abnormal Fed policy.
  • Thus it would be unusual to see a lot more performance out of long Treasuries. The stellar returns of the past can’t be repeated.
  • Three hard falls in the stock market 1973-4, 2000-2, 2007-9, each with a comeback.
  • By the end of the period, profit margins for stocks were abnormally high, and overvaluations are significant.

But maybe the way to view the abnormalities of the period as being “tests” of the strategy.  If it can survive this many tests, perhaps it can survive the unknown tests of the future.

Other risks, however unlikely, include:

  • Holding gold could be made illegal again.
  • The T-bills and T-bonds have only one creditor, the US Government. Are there scenarios where they might default for political reasons?  I think in most scenarios bondholders get paid, but who can tell?
  • Stock markets can close for protracted periods of time; in principle, public corporations could be made illegal, as they are statutory creations.
  • The US as a society could become less creative & productive, leading to malaise in its markets. Think of how promising Argentina was 100 years ago.

But if risks this severe happen, almost no investment strategy will be any good.  If the US isn’t a desirable place to live, what other area of the world would be?  And how difficult would it be to transfer assets there?

Summary

The Permanent Portfolio strategy is about as promising as any that I have seen for preserving the value of assets through a wide number of macroeconomic scenarios.  The volatility is low enough that almost anyone could maintain it.  Finally, it’s pretty simple.  Makes me want to consider what sort of product could be made out of this.

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Back to the Present

I delayed on posting this for a while — the original work was done five years ago.  In that time, there has been a decent amount of digital ink spilled on the Permanent Portfolio idea of Harry Browne’s.  I have two pieces written: Permanent Asset Allocation, and Can the “Permanent Portfolio” Work Today?

Part of the recent doubt on the concept has come from three sources:

  • Zero Interest rate policy [ZIRP] since late 2008, (6.8%/yr PP return)
  • The fall in Gold since late 2012 (2.7%/yr PP return), and
  • The fall in T-bonds in since mid-2016 (-4.7% annualized PP return).

Out of 46 calendar years, the strategy makes money in 41 of them, and loses money in 5 with the losses being small: 1.0% (2008), 1.9% (1994), 2.2% (2013), 3.6% (2015), and 4.5% (1981).  I don’t know about what other people think, but there might be a market for a strategy that loses ~2.6% 11% of the time, and makes 9%+ 89% of the time.

Here’s the thing, though — just because it succeeded in the past does not mean it will in the future.  There is a decent theory behind the Permanent Portfolio, but can it survive highly priced bonds and stocks?  My guess is yes.

Scenarios: 1) inflation runs, and the Fed falls behind the curve — cash and gold do well, bonds tank, and stocks muddle.  2) Growth stalls, and so does the Fed: bonds rally, cash and stocks muddle, and gold follows the course of inflation. 3) Growth runs, and the Fed swarms with hawks. Cash does well, and the rest muddle.

It’s hard, almost impossible to make them all do badly at the same time.  They react differently to changes in the macro-economy.

Upshot

There are a lot of modified permanent portfolio ideas out there, most of which have done worse than the pure strategy.  This permanent portfolio strategy would be relatively pure.  I’m toying with the idea of a lower minimum ($25,000) separate account that would hold four funds and rebalance as stated above, with fees of 0.2% over the ETF fees.  To minimize taxes, high cost tax lots would be sold first.  My question is would there be interest for something like this?  I would be using a better set of ETFs than the ones that I listed above.

I write this, knowing that I was disappointed when I started out with my equity management.  Many indicated interest; few carried through.  Small accounts and a low fee structure do not add up to a scalable model unless two things happen: 1) enough accounts want it, and 2) all reporting services are provided by Interactive Brokers.

Closing

Besides, anyone could do the rebalancing strategy.  It’s not rocket science.  There are enough decent ETFs to use.  Would anyone truly want to pay 0.2%/yr on assets to have someone select the funds and do the rebalancing for him?  I wouldn’t.

Photo Credit: Norman Maddeaux

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February 2017March 2017Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has continued to expand at a moderate pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in February indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has continued to expand at a moderate pace.No real change.
Job gains remained solid and the unemployment rate stayed near its recent low. Job gains remained solid and the unemployment rate was little changed in recent months. No real change.
Household spending has continued to rise moderately while business fixed investment has remained soft.Household spending has continued to rise moderately while business fixed investment appears to have firmed somewhat.Shades up business fixed investment.
Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late. That sentence lasted for one statement.
Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective.Inflation has increased in recent quarters, moving close to the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective; excluding energy and food prices, inflation was little changed and continued to run somewhat below 2 percent. Shades their view of inflation up.

Excluding two categories that have had high though variable inflation rates is bogus. Use a trimmed mean or the median.

Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.No change. What would be a high number, pray tell?  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.15%, unchanged from February.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy. But don’t blame the Fed, blame Congress.
The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further, and inflation will rise to 2 percent over the medium term.The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further, and inflation will stabilize around 2 percent over the medium term.No real change.

CPI is at +2.8%, yoy.  Seems to be rising quickly.

Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.No change.
In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/2 to 3/4 percent.In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 3/4 to 1 percent.Kicks the Fed Funds rate up ¼%.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.Suggests that they are waiting to see 2% inflation for a while before making changes.

They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.  Think of monetary policy as a drug for which a tolerance gets built up.

In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal.Now that inflation is 2%, they have to decide how much they are willing to let it run before they tighten with vigor.
The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of treasury, agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Neel Kashkari; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Large agreement.
 Voting against the action was Neel Kashkari, who preferred at this meeting to maintain the existing target range for the federal funds rate.Kashkari willing to be the lone dove amid rising inflation.  I wonder if he is thinking about systemic issues?

Comments

  • 2% inflation arrives, and the FOMC tightens another notch.
  • They are probably behind the curve.
  • The economy is growing well now, and in general, those who want to work can find work.
  • The change of the FOMC’s view is that inflation is higher. Equities and bonds rise. Commodity prices rise and the dollar weakens.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.

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I wrote this to summarize my thoughts from a chat session that I was able to participate in at Thompson Reuters Global Markets Forum yesterday.  It was wider ranging than this, but was a very enjoyable time.  Thanks to Manoj Rawal for inviting me.

On the Pursuit of Economic Growth

I think one of the conceits of the modern era is the degree of trust we place in governments.  We want them to do everything for us.  The truth is that their power is limited.  Even if we delegate more power to them, that doesn’t mean the power can/will be used by the government for the purposes intended.

The government is composed of people with their own goals.  It’s not much different than shareholders delegating power of the corporation to a board of directors, who collectively oversee management, should they care to do so.  Often delegated power gets misdirected for the ends of the power- and money-hungry.

Who watches the watchers?  It is one reason why we have “rule of law” in many republics – there is law that governs the government, if we have the will to maintain that.  It differs from “rule by law” which exists more commonly on Earth – laws exist so that the rulers can maintain their rule over those they rule – of which China is an excellent example.  Freedom that is good for the interests of the Communist Party is allowed to exist, but not other freedoms.  There are no rights that are God-given, not subject to the dictates of governments.

Sorry for the digression – my main point is that even the most powerful governments get bogged down, and can’t do nearly what people imagine they can do.  It is akin to what Peter Drucker said on management, that where managers proliferate, it takes progressive more people to manage all of the people – you might actually be able to get more done with fewer people.

Governments face another constraint – because people think the government can stimulate the economy, we have had governments stretch past their budgetary limits, borrow a lot of money, and make long-dated promises that they can’t keep.  This is not just a US phenomenon.  This is happening globally.  It is rare, possibly even non-existent to find countries that run balanced budgets, have sound monetary policy, and haven’t overpromised on entitlements.

As such, there isn’t that much that governments can do in terms of discretionary spending.  Even when they do allocate money, most projects of any significance don’t produce immediate results, but take years to start and more years to complete.  China may be able to run roughshod over its citizens, but where rule of law exists, there is necessary delay for most projects.  Obama or Trump can long for “shovel ready” projects.  They don’t exist, at least not many of them exist that are sizable.

As such, when I look at the plans of Donald Trump, I don’t give them a lot of weight in investment decisions that I make.  The same goes for any US or foreign leader, central banker, or whatever.  Short of starting a war, the amount of truly impactful things he can do is limited, especially for overly indebted governments.

What does matter then?  I think culture matters a lot.  Here are some questions to think about:

  • What priority do we place on taking risk?
  • How do you balance the competing needs of creditors and debtors?
  • How easy is it to start a business?
  • How do we feel about people using natural resources for profit?
  • How predictable is government policy, so that people can make long-term plans, and not worry about whether they will be able to see those plans to their fruition or not?
  • Does the culture protect private property?
  • Do we encourage men and women to marry, start families, and raise intelligent children?
  • Do we encourage charitable endeavors, so that effective help can be given to those who genuinely want to escape poverty? (rather than perpetuate it through continual handouts?)
  • How much do we play favorites across and within industries?
  • To what degree do we force uneconomic growth objectives through tax incentives, such as owning a home, rather than renting?
  • How much are we willing to allow technology to eliminate jobs, such that labor is directed away from simple tasks to tasks of higher complexity?

It is my opinion that those are the greater drivers of economic growth, and that the government can do little to foster growth, aside from having simple long-term policies, and letting us get on with being productive.

As such, I don’t see a lot going on right now that should promote higher growth.  Note that high growth is not necessary for a strong stock market, but it is necessary if you want to see ordinary laborers benefit in society.

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Onto the next rule:

“We pay disclosed compensation.  We pay undisclosed compensation.  We don’t pay both disclosed compensation and undisclosed compensation.”

I didn’t originate this rule, and I am not sure who did.  I learned it at Provident Mutual from the Senior Executives of Pension Division when I worked there in the mid-’90s.  There is a broader rule behind it that I will get to in a moment, but first I want to explain this.

There are many efforts in business, particularly in sales, where some want to hide what they are truly making, so that they can make an above average income off of the unsuspecting.  At the Pension Division of Provident Mutual, the sales chain worked like this: our representatives would try to sell our investment products to pension plans, both municipal and corporate.  We preferred going direct if we could, but often there would be some fellow who had ingratiated himself with the plan sponsor, perhaps by providing other services to the pension plan, and he would become a gateway to the pension plan.  His recommendation would play a large role in whether we made the sale or not.

Naturally, he wanted a commission.  That’s where the rule came in, and from what I remember at the time, many companies similar to us did not play by the rule.  When the sale was made, the client would see a breakdown of what he was going to be charged.  If we were paying disclosed compensation to the “gatekeeper,” we would point it out and mention that that was *all* the gatekeeper was making.  If the compensation was not disclosed, the client would see the bottom line total charge, and he would have to evaluate if that was good or bad deal for plan participants.

Our logic was this: the plan sponsor would have to analyze the total cost anyway for a bundled service against other possible bundled and unbundled services.  We would bundle or unbundle, depending on what the gatekeeper and client wanted.  If either wanted everything spelled out we would do it. If neither wanted it spelled out, we would only provide the bottom line.

What we would never do is provide a breakdown that was incomplete, hiding the amount that the gatekeeper was truly earning, such that client would see the disclosed compensation, and think that it was the entire compensation of the gatekeeper.

We were the smallest player in the industry as far as life insurers went, but we were more profitable than our peers, and growing faster also.  Our business retention was better because compensation surprises did not rise up to bite us, among other reasons.

Here’s the broader rule:

“Don’t be a Pig.”

Some of us had a saying in the Pension Division, “We’re the good guys.  We are trying to save the world for a gross margin of 0.25%/year on assets, plus postage and handling.”  Given that what we did had almost no capital requirements, that was pretty good.

Most scandals over pricing involve some type of hiding.  Consider the pricing of pharmaceuticals.  Given the opaqueness is difficult to tell who is making what.  Here is another article on the same topic from the past week.

In situations like this, it is better to take the high road, and make make your pricing more transparent than your competitors, if not totally transparent.  In this world where so much data is shared, it is only a matter of time before someone connects the dots on what is hidden.  Or, one farsighted competitor (usually the low cost provider) decides to lay it bare, and begins winning business, cutting into your margins.

I’ll give you an example from my own industry.  My fees may not be the lowest, but they are totally transparent.  The only money I make comes from a simple assets under management fee.  I don’t take soft dollars.  I make money off of asset management that is aligned with what I myself own.  (50%+ of my total assets and 80%+ of my liquid assets are invested exactly the same as my clients.)

Why should I muck that up to make a pittance more?  It’s a nice model; one that is easy to defend to the regulators, and explain to clients.

We probably would not have the fuss over the fiduciary rule if total and prominent disclosure of fees were done.  That said, how would the brokers have lived under total transparency?  How would life insurance salesmen live?  They would still live, but there would be fewer of them, and they would probably provide more services to justify their compensation.

Even as a bond trader, I learned not to overpress my edge.  I did not want to do “one amazing trade,” leaving the other side wounded.  I wanted a stream of “pretty good” trades.  An occasional tip to a broker that did not know what he was doing would make a “friend for life,” which on Wall Street could last at least a month!

You only get one reputation.  As Buffett said to the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives back in 1991 regarding Salomon Brothers:

I want the right words and I want the full range of internal controls. But I also have asked every Salomon employee to be his or her own compliance officer. After they first obey all rules, I then want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper, to be read by their spouses, children, and friends, with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter. If they follow this test, they need not fear my other message to them: Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.

This is a smell test much like the Golden Rule.  As Jesus said, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

That said, Buffett’s rule has more immediate teeth (if the CEO means it, and Buffett did), and will probably get more people to comply than God who only threatens the Last Judgment, which seems so far away.  But I digress.

Many industries today are having their pricing increasingly disclosed by everything that is revealed on the Internet.  In many cases, clients are asking for a greater justification of what is charged, or, are looking to do price and quality comparison where they could not do so previously, because they did not have the data.

Whether in financial product prices, healthcare prices, or other places where pricing has been bundled and secretive, the ability to hide is diminishing.  For those who do hide their pricing, I will offer you one final selfish argument as to why you should change: given present trends, in the long-run, you are fighting a losing battle.  Better to earn less per sale with happier clients, than to rip off clients now, and lose then forever, together with your reputation.

 

Doctored Photo Credit: Marvin Isidore Macatol || And I say this is heresy!

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My last post produced the following question:

What if your time horizon was 60 years? Would a 5% real return be achievable?

I am answering this as part of an irregular “think deeper” series on the problems of modeling investment over the very long term… the last entry was roughly six years ago.  It’s a good series of five articles, and this is number six.

On to the question.  The model forecasts over a ten-year period, and after that returns return to the long run average — about 9.5%/year nominal.  The naive answer would then be something like this: the model says over a 60-year period you should earn about 8.85%/year, considering that the first ten years, you should earn around 5.63%/year.  (Nominally, your initial investment will grow to be 161x+ as large.)   If you think this, you can earn a 5% real return if inflation over the 60 years averages 3.85%/year or less.  (Multiplying your capital in real terms by 18x+.)

Simple, right?

Now for the problems with this.  Let’s start with the limits of math.  No, I’m not going to teach you precalculus, though I have done that for a number of my kids.  What I am saying is that math reveals, but it also conceals.  In this case the math assumes that there is only one variable that affects returns for ten years — the proportion of investor asset held in stocks.  The result basically says that over a ten-year period, mean reversion will happen.  The proportion of investor asset held in stocks will return to an average level, and returns similar to the historical average will come thereafter.

Implicitly, this assumes that the return series underlying the regression is the perfectly normal return series, and the future will be just like it, only more so.  Let me tell you about some special things involved in the history of the last 71 years:

  • We have not lost a war on our home soil.
  • We have not had socialism to the destructive levels experienced by China under Mao, the USSR. North Korea, Cuba, etc.  (Ordinary socialism isn’t so damaging, though there are ethical reasons for not going that way.  People deserve freedom, not guarantees.  Note that stock returns in moderate socialist countries have been roughly as high as those in the US.  See the book Triumph of the Optimists.)
  • We have continued to have enough children, and they have become moderately productive workers.  Also, we have welcomed a lot of hard working and creative people to the US.
  • Technology has continued to improve, and along with it, labor productivity.
  • Adequate energy to multiply force and distribute knowledge is inexpensively available.
  • We have not experienced hyperinflation.

There are probably a few things that I have missed.  This is what I mean when I say the math conceals.  Every mathematical calculation abstracts quantity away from every other attribute, and considers it to be the only one worth analyzing.  Qualitative analysis is tougher and more necessary than quantitative analysis — we need it to give meaning to mathematical analyses.  (What are the limits?  What is it good for?  How can I use it?  How can I use it ethically?)

If you’ve read me long enough, you know that I view economies and financial markets as ecosystems.  Ecosystems are stable within limits.  Ecosystems also can only develop so quickly; there may be no limits to growth, but there are limits to the speed of growth in mature economies and financial systems.

Thus the question: will these excellent conditions continue?  My belief is that mankind never truly changes, and that history teaches us that all governments and most cultures eventually die.  When they do, most or all economic arrangements tend to break, especially complex ones like financial markets.

But here are three more limits, and they are more local:

  • Can you really hold for 60 years, reinvesting and never taking a material amount out?
  • Will the number investing in the equity markets remain small?
  • Will stock be offered and retired at ordinary prices?

 

Most people can’t lock money away for that long without touching it to some degree.  Some of the assets may get liquidated because of panic, personal emergency needs, etc.  Besides, why be a miser?  Warren Buffett, one of the greatest compounders of all time, might have ended up happier if he had spent less time compounding, and more time on his family.  It would have been better to take a small part of it, and use it to make others happy then, and not wait to be the one of the most famous philanthropists of the 21st century before touching it.

Second, returns may be smaller in the future because more pursue them.  One reason the rewards for being a capitalist are large on average is that there are relatively few of them.  Also, I have sometimes wondered if stock returns will fall when the whole world is employed, and there is no more cheap labor to be had.  Should that bold scenario ever come to pass, labor would have more bargaining power in aggregate, and profits would likely fall.

Finally, you have to recognize that the equity return statistics are somewhat overstated.  I’m not sure how much, but I think it is enough to reduce returns by 1%+.  Equity tends to be offered for initial purchase expensively, and tends to get retired inexpensively.  Businessmen are rational and tend to go public when stock valuations are high, pay employees in stock when valuations are high, and do stock deals when valuations are high.  They tend to go private when stock valuations are low, pay employees cash in ordinary times, and do cash deals when valuations are low.

As a result, though someone that buys and holds the stock index does best, less money is in the index when stocks are low, and a lot more when stocks are high.

Inflation Over 60 Years?

I mentioned the risk of hyperinflation above, but who can tell what inflation will do over 60 years?  If the market survives, I feel confident that stocks would outperform inflation — but how much is the open question.  We haven’t paid the price for loose monetary policy yet.  A 1% rise in inflation tends to cut stock returns by 2% for a year in real terms, but then businesses adjust and pass through higher prices.  Vice-versa when inflation falls.

Right now the 30-year forecast for inflation is around 2.1%/year, but that has bounced around considerably even within a calm environment.  My estimate of inflation over a 60-year period would be the weakest element of this analysis; you can’t tell what the politicians and central bankers will do, and they aren’t sure themselves.

Summary

Yes, you could earn 5% real returns on your money over a 60-year period… potentially.  It would take hard work, discipline, cleverness, frugality, and a cast iron stomach for risk.  You would need to be one of the few doing it.  It would also require the continued prosperity of the US and global economies.  We don’t prosper in a vacuum.

Thus in closing I will tell you that yes, you could do it, but there is a large probability of failure.  Don’t count on buying that grand villa on the Adriatic Sea in your eighties, should you have the strength to enjoy it.

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I recently received two sets of questions from readers. Here we go:

David,

I am a one-time financial professional now running a modest “home office” operation in the GHI area.  I have been reading your blog posts for a couple years now, and genuinely appreciate your efforts to bring accessible, thoughtful, and modestly stated insights to a space too often lacking all three characteristics.  If I didn’t enjoy your financial posts so much, I’d request that you bring your approach to the political arena – but that’s a different discussion altogether…

I am writing today with two questions about your work on the elegant market valuation approach you’ve credited to @Jesse_Livermore.   I apologize in advance for any naivety evidenced by my lack of statistical background…

  1. I noticed that you constructed a “homemade” total return index – perhaps to get you data back to the 1950s.  Do you see any issue using SPXTR index (I see data back to 1986)?  The 10yr return r-squared appears to be above .91 vs. investor allocation variable since that date.
  2. The most current Fed/FRED data is from Q32016.  It appears that the Q42016 data will be released early March (including perhaps “re-available” data sets for each of required components http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=qis ).  While I appreciate that the metric is not necessarily intended as a short-term market timing device, I am curious whether you have any interim device(s) you use to estimate data – especially as the latest data approaches 6 months in age & the market has moved significantly?

I appreciate your thoughts & especially your continued posts…

JJJ

These questions are about the Estimating Future Stock Returns posts.  On question 1, I am pulling the data from Shiller’s data.  I don’t have a better data feed, but that should be the S&P 500 data, or pretty near it.  It goes all the way back to the start of the Z.1 series, and I would rather keep things consistent, then try to fuse two similar series.

As for question 2, Making adjustments for time elapsed from the end of the quarter is important, because the estimate is stale by 70-165 days or so.  I treat it like a 10-year zero coupon bond and look at the return since the end of the quarter.  I could be more exact than this, adjusting for the exact period and dividends, but the surprise from the unknown change in investor behavior which is larger than any of the adjustment simplifications.  I take the return since the end of the last reported quarter and divide by ten, and subtract it from my ten year return estimate.  Simple, understandable, and usable, particularly when the adjustment only has to wait for 3 more months to be refreshed.

PS — don’t suggest that I write on politics.  I annoy too many people with my comments on that already. 😉

Now for the next question:

I have a quick question. If an investor told you they wanted a 3% real return (i.e., return after inflation) on their investments, do you consider that conservative? Average? Aggressive? I was looking at some data and it seems on the conservative side.

EEE

Perhaps this should go in the “dirty secrets” bin.  Many analyses get done using real return statistics.  I think those are bogus, because inflation and investment returns are weakly related when it comes to risk assets like stocks and any other investment with business risk, even in the long run.  Cash and high-quality bonds are different.  So are precious metals and commodities as a whole.  Individual commodities that are not precious metals have returns that are weakly related to inflation.  Their returns depend more on their individual pricing cycle than on inflation.

I’m happier projecting inflation and real bond returns, and after that, projecting the nominal returns using my models.  I typically do scenarios rather than simulation models because the simulations are too opaque, and I am skeptical that the historical relationships of the past are all that useful without careful handling.

Let’s answer this question to a first approximation, though.  Start with the 10-year breakeven inflation rate which is around 2.0%.  Add to that a 10-year average life modification of the Barclays’ Aggregate, which I estimate would yield about 3.0%.  Then go the the stock model, which at 9/30/16 projected 6.37%/yr returns.  The market is up 7.4% since then in price terms.  Divide by ten and subtract, and we now project 5.6%/year returns.

So, stocks forecast 3.6% “real” returns, and bonds 1.0%/year returns over the next 10 years.  To earn a 3% real return, you would have to invest 77% in stocks and 23% in 10-year high-quality bonds.  That’s aggressive, but potentially achievable.  The 3% real return is a point estimate — there is a lot of noise around it.  Inflation can change sharply upward, or there could be a market panic near the end of the 10-year period.  You might also need the money in the midst of a drawdown.  There are many ways that a base scenario could go wrong.

You might say that using stocks and bonds only is too simple.  I do that because I don’t trust return most risk and return estimates for more complex models, especially the correlation matrices.  I know of three organizations that I think have good models — T. Rowe Price, Research Affiliates, and GMO.  They look at asset returns like I do — asking what the non-speculative returns would be off of the underlying assets and starting there.  I.e. if you bought and held them w/reinvestment of their cash flows, how much would the return be after ten years?

Earning 3% real returns is possible, and not that absurd, but it is a little on the high side unless you like holding 77% in stocks and 23% in 10-year high-quality bonds, and can bear with the volatility.

That’s all for now.

Composition of Liabilities 1994-2016

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The last time I wrote about this was four years ago.  I have covered this topic off and on for the last 25 years.  As usual, the report got released during a relatively dead time, January 12th, where most people were listening to the preparations for the inauguration.  I’ll give them some credit though — not as much of a dead time as usual; it was in the middle of a work week, AND earlier than usual.  (It would be nice to know when it’s coming, though.)

I have two main messages to go with my two graphs.  The first message is one I have been saying before — beware some of the estimates that you hear, should you hear them at all.  No one wants to talk about this, but what few that do will look at a few headline numbers and leave it there.  Really you have to look at it for years, and look at the footnotes and other explanatory sections in the back when things seemingly change for no good reason.  Also, you have to add all the bits up.  No one will do that for you.  Even with that, you are relying on the assumptions that the government uses, and they are not biased toward making the estimates sound larger.  They tend to make them smaller.

Thus you will see two things that adjust the headline figures.  In 2004, when Medicare part D was created, the Financial Report of the US Government began mentioning the Infinite Horizon Increment.  Now, that liability always existed, but the actuaries began calculating how solvent is the system as a whole if it were permanent, as opposed to lasting 75 years.

The second is the Alternative Medicare Scenario.  When the PPACA (Obamacare) was created in 2010, there was considerable chicanery in the cost estimates.  The biggest part was that they assumed Medicare Part A (HI) would cost a lot less because they would reduce the amount that they would reimburse.  They legislated away costs by assuming them away, and then each year Congress would restore the funding so that there wouldn’t be a firestorm when doctors stopped taking Medicare.  But they left it in for budget and forecast purposes, and showed what the projections would be like if these cuts never took place in what they called the Alternative Medicare Scenario.

So, did the cuts to Medicare part A take place? No.

As you can see they have gone up almost every year since 2010. The liability should not have gone down. If you think the Alternative Medicare Scenario is conservative enough, the liability has remained relatively constant since 2010, not diminished dramatically.

How is the load relative to GDP?  It keeps growing, but since 2010 at a less frantic clip.  The adjusted ratio below includes the Alternative Medicare Scenario.

Final Notes

Remember that we have had a recovery since 2009.  The statistics never assume that we will have another recession, much less a full fledged crisis like 2008-9.  Without adjustment, the Medicare part A trust fund will run out in 2028.  There is no provision for what the reimbursements will be made if the trust fund runs dry.  Social Security’s trust fund will run out a few years after that, and instead of getting 12 checks a year, people will only get 9 of that same amount.  If there is a significant recession, those statistics will move forward by an unknown number of years.  Without congressional action, because there will be a recession, I would expect that both will run out somewhere in the middle of the 2020s, and then the real political fun will begin.

The tendency has been over time to turn these from entitlements to old age welfare schemes.  FDR always wanted them to be self funded entitlements with everybody getting roughly the same treatment by formula, because he wanted the program to have widespread legitimacy across all classes, and no sense of stigma for being a poor old person on the dole.

Given the strategies that exist around qualifying for Medicaid, those days are gone, so I would expect that benefits will be limited for those better off, inflation adjustments eliminated, taxes raised to some degree, eligibility ages quickly raised a few more years, with elimination of strategies that allow people to get more out of the system by being clever.  (As an example, expect the favorable late retirement factors to get reduced, and the early retirement factors to go down even more.)

Does this sound fun?  Of course not, but remember that cultures are larger than economies, which are larger than governments.  The cultural need for supporting poor elderly people will lead funding to continue, unless it makes the government, and the culture as a whole fail in the process, and that would never happen, right?

Photo Credit: Brent Moore || Watch the piggies run after scarce yield!

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If you do remember the first time I wrote about yield being poison, you are unusual, because it was the first real post at Aleph Blog.  A very small post — kinda cute, I think when I look at it from almost ten years ago… and prescient for its time, because a lot of risky bonds were about to lose value (in 19 months), aside from the highest quality bonds.

I decided to write this article this night because I decided to run my bond momentum model — low and behold, it yelled at me that everyone is grabbing for yield through credit risk, predominantly corporate and emerging markets, with a special love for bank debt closed end funds.

I get the idea — short rates are going to rise because the Fed is tightening and inflation is rising globally, and there is no credit risk anymore because economic growth is accelerating globally — it’s not just a US/Trump thing.  I just have a harder time playing the game because we are in the wrong phase of the credit cycle — profit growth is nonexistent, and debts are growing.

I have a few other concerns as well.  Even if encouraging exports and discouraging imports aids the US economy for a while (though I doubt it — more jobs rely on exports than are lost by imports, what if there is retaliation?) there is a corresponding opposite impact on the capital account — less reinvestment in the US.  We could see higher yields…

That said, I would be more bearish on the US Dollar if it had some real competition.  All of the major currencies have issues.  Gold, anyone?  Low short rates and rising inflation are the ideal for gold.  Watch the real cost of carry go more negative, and you get paid (sort of) for holding gold.

If growth and inflation persist globally (consider some of the work @soberlook has  been doing at The WSJ Daily Shot — a new favorite of mine, even his posts are too big) then almost no bonds except the shortest bonds will be any good in the intermediate-term — back to the ’70s phrase “certificates of confiscation.”  One other effect that could go this way — if the portion of Dodd-Frank affecting bank leverage is repealed, the banks will have a much greater ability to lend overnight, which would be inflationary.  Of course, they could just pay special dividends, but most corporations lean toward growing the business, unless they are disciplined capital allocators.

But it is not assured that the current growth and inflation will persist.  M2 Monetary velocity is still low, and the long end of the yield curve does not have yield enough priced in for additional growth and inflation.  Either long bonds are a raving sell, or the long end is telling us we are facing a colossal fake-out in the midst of too much leverage globally.

Summary

I’m going to stay high quality and short for now, but I will be watching for the current trends to break.  I may leg into some long Treasuries, and maybe some foreign bonds.  Gold looks interesting, but I don’t think I am going there.  I’m not making any big moves in the short run — safe and short feels pretty good for the bond portfolios that I manage.  I think it’s a time to preserve principal — there is more credit risk than the market is pricing in.  It might take a year or two to get there, or it might be next month… I would simply say stay flexible and look for a time where you have better opportunities.  There is no fat pitch at present for long only investors like me.

Postscript

To those playing with fire buying dividend paying common stocks, preferred stocks, MLPs, etc. for yield — if we hit a period where credit risk becomes obvious — all of your “yield plays” will behave like stocks in a poisoned sector.  There could be significant dividend cuts.  Dividends are not guaranteed like bonds — bonds must pay or it is bankruptcy.  Managements avoid defaulting on their bonds and loans, but will not hesitate to cut or not pay dividends in a crisis — it is self-preservation, at least in the short-run.  Even if they get replaced by angry shareholders, the management typically gets some sort of parachute if the company survives, and far less in bankruptcy.

One final note on this point — stocks that have a lot of yield buyers behave more like bonds.  If bond yields rise above current stock earnings yields, the stock prices will fall to reprice the yield of the stock, even if there is no bankruptcy risk.

And, if you say you can hold on and enjoy the rising dividends of your high quality companies?  Accidents happen, the same way they did to some people who bought houses in the middle of the last decade.  Many could not ride out the crisis because of some life event.  Make sure you have a margin of safety.  In a really large crisis, the return on risk assets may look decent from ten years before to ten years after, but a lot of people get surprised by their need to draw on those assets at the wrong moment — bad events come in bunches, when the credit cycle goes bust. Be careful, and don’t reach for yield.

Photo Credit: eflon || Ask to visit the Medieval dining hall!  Really!

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December 2016February 2017Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in November indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace since mid-year.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has continued to expand at a moderate pace.No real change.
Job gains have been solid in recent months and the unemployment rate has declined.Job gains remained solid and the unemployment rate stayed near its recent low.No real change.
Household spending has been rising moderately but business fixed investment has remained soft.Household spending has continued to rise moderately while business fixed investment has remained soft.No real change.
 Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late.New sentence.
Inflation has increased since earlier this year but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective.Shades their view of inflation up.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation have moved up considerably but still are low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.What would be a high number, pray tell?  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.15%, up 0.07%  from December.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy. But don’t blame the Fed, blame Congress.
The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further. Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.The Committee expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further, and inflation will rise to 2 percent over the medium term.Drops references to falling energy prices stopping, and wage pressures. Strengthens language on inflation, which is a slam dunk, given that it is there already on better inflation measures than the PCE deflator.

CPI is at +2.1% NOW, yoy.

Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.No change.
In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/2 to 3/4 percent.No change. Builds in the idea that they are reacting at least partially to expected future conditions in inflation and labor.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No change. They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.  Think of monetary policy as a drug for which a tolerance gets built up.

What would a non-accommodative monetary policy be, anyway?

In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.No change.
The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of treasury, agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Esther L. George; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Neel Kashkari; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Full agreement; new people.

 

Comments

  • The FOMC holds, but deludes itself that it is still accommodative.
  • The economy is growing well now, and in general, those who want to work can find work.
  • Maybe policy should be tighter. The key question to me is whether lower leverage at the banks was a reason for ultra-loose policy.
  • The change of the FOMC’s view is that inflation is higher. Equities are stable and bonds fall a little. Commodity prices rise and the dollar weakens.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.

The global economy is growing, inflation is rising globally, the dollar is rising, and the 30-year Treasury has not moved all that much relative to all of that.  My guess is that the FOMC could get the Fed funds rate up to 2% if they want to invert the yield curve.  A rising dollar will slow the economy and inflation somewhat.

Aside from that, I am looking for what might blow up.  Maybe some country borrowing too much in dollars?  Tightening cycles almost always end with a bang.

Data from the CIA Factbook

Data from the CIA Factbook

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I write about this every now and then, because human fertility is falling faster then most demographers expect. Using the CIA Factbook for data, the present total fertility rate for the world is 2.407 births per woman that survives childbearing. That is down from 2.425 in 2014, 2.467 in 2012, and 2.489 in 2010.  At this rate, the world will be at replacement rate (2.1), somewhere between 2035 and 2040. That’s a lot earlier than most expect, and it makes me suggest that global population will top out somewhat below 9 Billion in 2050, lower and earlier than most expect.

Have a look at the Total Fertility Rate by group in the graph above. The largest nations for each cell are listed below the graph. Note Asian nations to the left, and African nations to the right.

Africa is so small, that the high birth rates have little global impact. Also, AIDS consumes their population, as do wars, malnutrition, etc.

The Arab world is also slowing in population growth. When Saudi Arabia at replacement rate (2.11), you can tell that the women are gaining the upper hand there, which is notable given the polygamy is permitted.

In the Developed world, who leads in fertility? Israel at 2.66. Next is France at 2.07 (Arabs), New Zealand at 2.03, Iceland at 2.01, Ireland at 1.98 (up considerably), UK at 1.89, Sweden at 1.88, and the US at 1.87, which is below replacement. The US still grows from immigration, as does France.

Most of the above is a quick update of my prior pieces, which have some additional crunchy insights.  When I look at the new data, I wonder if developed nations might not finally be waking up to the birth dearth.  Take a look at this graph:

Now, the bottom left is a little crammed.  What if I expand it?

I did the second graph in order to make the point that nations with fertility below 1.76 in 2010 tended to increase their fertility, while those above 1.76 tended to decrease it.  Not that you should trust any statistical analysis, but if you could, this is statistically significant at a level well above 99%.  (Note: this is an ordinary least squares regression.  Every “nation” is weighted equally.  If I get asked nicely, I could do a weighted least squares regression which gives heavy weight to China, India and the US, and less weight to Somalia, the West Bank, and Tonga.  I don’t think the result would change much.)

I’m chuckling a little bit as I write this, because this is an interesting result, and one that I never thought I would be writing when I started this project.  Interesting, huh?  My guess is that there is a limit to how much you can get people to reduce family sizes before they begin to question the idea.  Older parents may say, “What was that all about?” but children are usually fun and cute when they are little if they are reasonably disciplined.

One final note: I’ve been running into a lot of demographic articles of late, but this was the one that got me to write this: The World’s Most Populous Country Is Turning Gray.  The barbaric “One Child Policy” of China is having its impact; demography is often destiny.  That said, over the last six years China’s total fertility rate has moved from 1.54 to 1.60.

As it says in the article:

Births in 2016 reached 17.86 million, the most since 2000, rising by 1.91 million from 2015, the National Health and Family Planning Commission said this month. That still falls short of the official projection. Last June, the ministry estimated there would be an increase of 4 million new births every year until 2020. China will continue to implement the two-child policy to promote a balanced population, the plan said.

Fertility doesn’t turn on a dime.  When women conclude that the rewards of society (money, power, approval of peers) go to those with fewer children, that’s a tough cultural idea to overcome.  I would conclude that it will take a lot longer than a single five-year plan to turn around birthrates in China… if they can be turned around at all.  All across Asia, marriages happen at lesser rates, happen later, and produce fewer children.  China is one of the more notable examples.

PS — Picky note: the two-child policy in China is only available to a husband and wife where at least one is an “only child.”  It won’t create a balanced population near replacement rate, as everyone else must have only one child (with exceptions).